Consequentialism of some kind, usually Utilitarianism, is the ‘kneejerk’ moral theory of our time. It seems obvious to many people that the right – the moral – thing to do is whatever will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Even the Government is keen to work out what it is that makes for ‘well-being’ (here is a speech the Prime Minister made arguing that the Government can help to produce well-being).
There is something clearly right about Utilitarianism. We undoubtedly do make moral decisions on the basis of which action is likely to produce the best outcome for all concerned.
The QALY is probably the most formal example of this: which intervention should be given to which patient is often decided by a calculation of Quality Adjusted Life Years – how many more years the patients will live, what the quality of their life will be during those years, and what it will cost for each QALY (see here for a paper questioning the thinking behind the QALY).
Another reason Consequentialism (and particularly Utilitarianism) is favoured is that people believe it is not absolutist (if you’d like to learn more about the distinction between absolutism and relativism look at my short podcast here). If it will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number a Utilitarian can lie, steal, break promises or even kill. (Of course the Utilitarian must take into his calculation the unhappiness engendered by breaking rules that society often treats as sacrosanct).
Utilitarianism, however, is absolutist. It holds as absolutely true – true everywhere for everyone at every time – that the right action is that which (tends) to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be absolutist about ‘lower order’ moral rules (‘do not lie’ etc.), but it is absolutist at a higher order.
It is in its non-absolutism, though, at the lower order, that Utilitarianism meets problems.
Oddly enough, in these Utilitarian times, we are very keen indeed on human rights. We hold them almost sacred.
But Utilitarianism has problems with the idea of human rights. After all if genocide would bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, genocide is acceptable, morally acceptable. If one could bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number by enslaving a given population, on the other hand, then it is right – morally right – to enslave them.
We can try various ways to wriggle out of this on behalf of the Utilitarian. Many people would be unhappy about slavery – not least the slaves. But if we can find a way – any way – to make the utility calculus come out in favour of slavery then the utilitarian is committed to arguing that slavery is right, morally right.
Do you think Utilitarianism can survive this problem? Or does it show that however useful Utilitarianism is, it cannot be the final word on morality?